“Perhaps taking a cue from ancient times, Little Italy’s vibrancy and allure is all about the age-old tradition of meeting good friends and sharing a delicious meal together. Named in tribute to the hundreds of thousands of people of Italian descent who made the area at College and Euclid their home at the start of the early 1950s, Little Italy today is noted to be one of the trendiest and friendliest neighbourhoods in North America. Clearly eclectic, always warm and inviting. It is one of the most treasured neighbourhoods in a city that prides itself on culture and diversity.”
The Layout of Little Italy:
College Street was fully laid out in the area by 1900 and the area is filled with buildings from the 1900 era. College Street is fronted by two or three-storey buildings, with commercial uses on the ground floor and residential or storage uses on the upper floors.
From Manning Avenue to the east to Shaw Street to the west, there are numerous sidewalk cafes. Some of the more renowned ones include: Cafe Diplomatico, Riviera Bakery, and Sicilian Ice Cream.
The curved street between Grace and Crawford was laid out with larger sidewalks. This section was laid out later to cross Garrison Creek, which was buried under Crawford. The wider sidewalks have led to more extensive cafe patios in this area. At Clinton, on the north side, is the Royal repertory cinema, which was recently renovated and has an upgraded projection system as it is used for movie editing purposes during the day and repertory cinema in the evenings. While the street commercial usage is dominated by cafe and restaurant uses, there are numerous small businesses serving the neighbourhood.
The side streets are mostly detached or semi-detached single family homes dating to the early 1900s Edwardian period, with front porches and the smaller lots as was the custom at the time.
Italians arrived in Toronto in large numbers during the early 20th century. Italians first settled in an area then known as “The Ward”, centred around University Avenue and College Street. By the 1920’s, most Italians had moved west of Bathurst Street and the College-Clinton area had emerged as the city’s major Little Italy. The affordable Edwardian homes that line the side streets of this neighbourhood were bought by Italian immigrants, many of whom found work on the railways and in road construction.
While the Second World War brought many hardships on Italian Canadians, the close of the war brought a relaxation in immigration policy and triggered a massive influx of Italians to Toronto. A large number of these immigrants made their way to College Street West and started businesses in this area.
Despite the name, the area is much more ethnically diverse today. Italian-Canadians born during the Baby Boom and Italian immigrants from the 1960’s onwards have tended to settle in the Corso Italia neighbourhood around St. Clair Avenue and Dufferin Street and the suburbs. The Italian families that moved out of Little Italy were replaced by Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish families. By the 1960’s, the Hispanic Canadians had become the largest ethnic group in the Little Italy area. This mix of cultures gives Little Italy the international flavour that it enjoys today. Little Italy has also become quite popular with younger crowds because of its vibrant nightlife and its proximity to the downtown core. Since the 1980’s, many young professionals have been buying homes in the neighbourhood.
The first multi-cultural radio station in Canada was CHIN, which was launched in 1966 by Johnny Lombardi from studios on the south side of College between Grace and Clinton, on the second floor of Lombardi’s supermarket at 637 College Street. Lombardi at first purchased air time on English radio stations before the establishment of CHIN Radio, producing Italian programming. The show was successful and his store flourished. Lombardi became a promoter of concerts and sporting events, and was a champion of multiculturalism before it was even implemented as Canadian government policy. The studio, much expanded is now located at 622 College Street, and the section of the street in the area has been officially nicknamed Johnny Lombardi Way by the city of Toronto and a historical plaque is installed on the south-west corner of College and Grace Street. Lombardi died in 2002 and CHIN is now run by his son, broadcasting in 30 languages.
Mirvish Village is a commercial enclave to the northwest of Little Italy. It is located on Markham Street, which is one block west of Bathurst Street, and encompasses the two sides of the street for one block south of Bloor Street. It is located within the Palmerston-Little Italy neighbourhood, within the “Old” City of Toronto. It’s made up of a series of Victorian homes on Markham Street which now house independently owned shops, art studios, cafes, bookstores, boutiques and galleries. Between 1959 and 1963, Ed Mirvish of Honest Ed’s bought up the east side of the block, immediately south of his store, with the intention of tearing down the houses and building a customer parking lot. Toronto’s municipal government refused to issue a building permit; therefore, Mirvish converted the buildings into art studios and galleries with the help of his wife, Anne, a sculptor. Later, he purchased the houses on the other side of the street. His son is the owner of David MirvishGallery, which opened in 1963 as one of Mirvish Village’s first shops; along with David Mirvish Books, the enterprises act as anchors to additional retail stores and galleries.
Little Italy Fiera:
“September 1st and 2nd, 2009.
A unique celebration of all things Italian: Music, Entertainment, Cuisine, Art, Wine, Design and Culture. For two days enjoy the sights and sounds of Little Italy as this vibrant neighbourhood highlights its Italian soul through the many cafes, restaurants, patios and retail shops. Many of Little Italy’s restaurants will be featuring their signature dishes Al’ Italiana, offering special samplings priced between $2-$5. Little Italy on College Street, twelve blocks between Bathurst and Shaw will be closed to vehicular traffic. Musicians and entertainers will perform all day along the College Street strip from 12noon to 11pm each day. Stroll one of the most famous streets in Toronto while you browse the merchandise, art and wine from Italy and unique street entertainment. Saturday and Sunday night the main “piazza stage” at Palmerston will offer entertainment direct from Italy, and dancing under the stars to close off the evenings. One of Sunday afternoon’s special attractions is the Johnny Lombardi Song Festival, when over 20 rising stars with a passion for Italian song, compete for cash and prizes as they seek the coveted trophy.”
Taste of Little Italy Festival:
“This street festival gives all Torontonians an opportunity to experience a little bit of Italy right here in Toronto. Food and beverage retailers serve up mouth-watering tastes and flavours, with promotions and samples of cuisine. The festival even also offers plenty of family-friendly events, including live music on street corners, patios and balconies.”